At the top of the Karakoram Pass lie two heaps of stones, around 50 feet apart. One heap in India and the other in China. They indicate the India-China boundary at the westernmost point on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) between the two countries. The Karakoram Pass is one of the few places where the boundary is not disputed; it is the first patrolling point (PP1) on the China border that the security forces—the Army and the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP)—are supposed to patrol regularly.
Until September 2021, senior officers of Leh district administration and security forces could patrol up to the Karakoram Pass unhindered. In December 2021, the Army placed check-posts at Daulat Beg Oldi, 35km south, and restricted the free movement of civilian officials to the pass. In a paper submitted at a DGPs’ conference in New Delhi in January 2023, the SP of Leh, P.D. Nitya, wrote that the army had imposed these restrictions because China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had installed powerful cameras atop the pass and “they would immediately raise objections on the movement from the Indian side if not informed beforehand”.
This restrictive approach, she argued, “has affected our assertiveness and areas which were much accessible from our side became an informal ‘buffer’ zone”. To avoid the PLA’s objections, since 2014 the Army has barred the Rebos, the nomadic community of Changthang region, from grazing in areas close to the LAC. Development works in the border villages like Demchok and Koyul, which are under direct electronic surveillance of the PLA, have also suffered because the PLA raises objections promptly.
Assertive China, defensive India
Coming from a senior police officer at a conference that was attended by the Prime Minister, the Union Home Minister and the National Security Adviser, the paper furnishes the most authentic information about the situation on the 775-km-long LAC at Ladakh. Beyond the specific details, it points to a timidity of approach and a play-safe attitude on display by the Army that has further emboldened an assertive PLA. It avoids any action that could provoke China. It is not about restoring the status quo as it existed in Ladakh before the crisis became public in May 2020 but only about preventing further loss of territory.
Flowing from the stance of the top political leadership—to either deny or distract from the crisis—the mindset is defensive. At his annual press conference on January 12, Army chief General Manoj Pande said the Army was maintaining a robust defensive posture to “prevent any attempts from our adversary to unilaterally change the status quo” at the LAC.
General Pande claimed that out of the seven issues in Ladakh—Depsang, Galwan, Gogra, Kakjung, the north bank of Pangong lake, Kailash Range and Demchok—five have been resolved. This was a deliberate mischaracterisation of the ‘disengagement’ achieved in these five areas. Disengagement only results in soldiers, who are in an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation, being separated by a few kilometres of ‘buffer zone’. The Chinese have refused to take the next stage of de-escalation on the agenda of talks, which would bring the soldiers and equipment back to their semi-permanent or permanent bases around 100 km away. The final step would be de-induction of the additional forces that had come into Ladakh in the last three years.
Disengagement is like a temporary salve for a malaise, but not a lasting remedy. The Leh SP wrote that the disengagement deal for PP15 and PP16, which was announced by the Army in September 2022, resulted in loss of pasture lands at Gogra hills. It was a similar case in earlier disengagements, with losses of territory on the north bank of Pangong lake and Kakjung areas. In two of the most important areas—Depsang and Demchok—there has been no disengagement and the PLA has flatly refused to discuss them during the 17 rounds of talks held so far between senior military commanders.
The SP’s paper also highlighted that of the 65 PPs in Ladakh, “our presence is lost in 26 PPs”. This is loss of Indian control over territory in border areas, estimated at around 2,000 sq km by Manoj Joshi in his book Understanding the India-China Border: The Enduring Threat of War in High Himalaya. The status quo, as it exists today, ought to be unacceptable to India.
But the Chinese stance is explicit. When The Hindu’s Ananth Krishnan asked the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson in September 2022, he said that Beijing would not accept India’s demand to restore the status quo of April 2020 as it “was created by India’s illegal crossing of the LAC”. During his recent visit to Delhi, when Donald Lu, US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, criticised China’s “aggressive” moves along the Indian border, the Chinese embassy in Delhi was quick to retaliate. Its statement said that both China and India “...promote the border situation to switch from the phase of emergency response to normalised management and control”.
Three days later, when Indian Ambassador to Beijing Pradeep Rawat sought a meeting with the Chinese Vice Foreign Minister, Sun Weidong, who was until recently the Chinese Ambassador in New Delhi, the Chinese statement reiterated that the “border situation is generally stable at the moment and is switching from emergency response to normalised management and control”.
Beijing is unequivocally stating that this is the new normal on the border. New Delhi seems to be concurring, both with its words and actions. The Modi government no longer states that its goal is to seek restoration of status quo in Ladakh as it existed in April 2020, while the army leadership boasts of its defensive posture on the LAC.
Quiver short of arrows
Even though the Chinese economy is six times India’s size and Delhi’s defence budget is barely one-fourth of Beijing’s, India has always had plans to deter China’s aggressive designs on the border. This was demonstrated during the Nathu La clash in 1967 and in the Sumdorung Chu standoff in 1987. Even in 2013, when the PLA blocked the Army from accessing five PPs in Depsang plains, the Indians undertook a quid pro quo action to move into some Chinese territory. This was confirmed by the then Northern Army Commander, Lieutenant General K.T. Parnaik, in July 2020: “Early warning facilitated by strategic surveillance should enable us to deploy at our perceived LAC to check ingress, while we simultaneously resort to a quid pro quo, as we did during the Depsang intrusion in 2013. Early response creates leverage and that matters.”
It was also recommended in a document entitled “Nonalignment 2.0: A Foreign and Strategic Policy for India in the Twenty First Century”, produced in 2012 by the Centre for Policy Research. The authors of the report had worked closely with the then United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government. “There are several areas where the local tactical and operational advantage rests with us. These areas should be identified and earmarked for limited offensive operations on our part,” the report said, placing the tactical move in a strategic context. “There is the possibility that China might resort to territorial grabs. In either case—whether China resorts to a limited probe or to a larger offensive—our aim should be the restoration of status quo ante,” it added.
Now, the only limited QPQ action initiated by India was on the Kailash range in August 2020 but even there, hesitation in occupying the dominant peaks lying on the Chinese side reduced India’s leverage. In subsequent negotiations, this limited leverage resulted only in getting a buffer zone on the north bank of Pangong lake. Since then, India has neither planned nor threatened to launch another QPQ action to restore the status quo ante in Ladakh. In informal briefings, officials argue that such a move carries a high risk of escalation—it is a war India can ill-afford considering the state of its armed forces.
The Indian Air Force has 30 combat squadrons against the 42 it is authorised, while the navy is commissioning vessels without modern armament; no Indian naval pilot has landed on an aircraft carrier since January 2021 as INS Vikramaditya has been in maintenance. After the government barred recruitment during the pandemic—subsequently replacing it with a short-term contractual soldiering scheme—the army is short of more than 100,000 soldiers. As per General Pande, the Ukraine war has disrupted the sustenance lines for spares and ammunition of Soviet- and Russian-origin weapons. Bereft of funds, the armed forces have been struggling to maintain stocks for 10 days of intense fighting, against an operational directive that orders stocking for up to 50 days of intense fighting. It is another matter that the Modi government has not updated the directive issued by the UPA government in 2009.
Pakistan adds to the risk during a confrontation with China, as it can always take advantage of Indian commitment on the LAC to make some moves in Kashmir. A two-front collusive military threat is a nightmare for India, but by opening back-channel communications with Pakistan through the UAE in 2020, the Modi government has subdued that challenge. When the Chinese threat loomed large in 2020, the army was forced to reorient some of its forces away from Pakistan towards China. This internal rebalancing has somewhat denuded India’s capacity to tackle Pakistan, bringing down the threshold for use of nuclear weapons in a conflict situation.
New Delhi was expected to undertake external balancing by forging military partnerships with other countries in the Indo-Pacific. However, the Modi government has blocked plans to have a security angle to the Quad grouping, much to the chagrin of the other members. A long-pending Australian request to have an Indian submarine dock at Perth has been ignored—Canberra believes that it is for the fear of provoking China. Tokyo is frustrated that “a genuine sense of solidarity is lacking within the Quad” because of India’s inability “to break free from its old habits”. The Governor of Tokyo, Yuriko Koike, who was Defence Minister and National Security Adviser under Shinzo Abe, wrote in December 2022: “Were Abe still alive, I have no doubt that he would be quietly persuading Modi to recognise what is at stake and fully embrace India’s Quad partners.”
With the West courting Delhi as part of its counter-China strategy and a friendless Russia holding to its old ties with India, the Modi government is convinced that it can live in the best of both worlds. By pursuing a strategy of multi-alignment and bilateral relationships, with a rotational G20 the crowning glory of Modi’s personalised diplomacy, Delhi is trying to ensure its security against Beijing’s designs. The aversion to seeking a more dynamic form of military and security cooperation with others in the Indo-Pacific comes less from any principled position and more from the fear of provoking China. The hesitation to take risks is depriving India of the possible rewards.
The situation on the economic front is the worst. After boastfully signalling in 2020 that it wants to target Chinese companies, the Modi government is now courting them to come and ‘Make in India’, the most egregious case being the recent offer to 15 Chinese suppliers of Apple. In 2022, India’s imports from China touched a record high, while exports to China fell to a five-year low. This imbalance has further widened the trade deficit in China’s favour, as the bilateral trade has reached record levels. Not only did India’s dependency on China increase after Modi came to power in 2014, but the government has been unable to check the rising graph even during the ongoing border crisis. When it comes to retaliatory measures, the Modi government has a quiver short of arrows—much of it, its own doing.
Nearly three years after the border crisis surfaced in Ladakh, the Modi government’s China strategy is purely defensive: to avoid provoking China by its actions and somehow preserve the current status quo. But there are costs to this strategy. Indian soldiers have spent three winters in the harsh climes of Ladakh, which is bound to take a toll on men and machinery. The extra commitment keeps India fixated on the land borders, propelling it away from the waters of the Indo-Pacific where the contestation of the future will occur.
The defensive approach, with no retaliatory measures, has emboldened China to continue to assert itself. It could thus attempt to dislodge India from the Yangtse ridge in Tawang, where the Indian military deployment is rather strong.
The breakdown of deterrence puts the risks for Delhi much higher than ever before. India’s weaknesses in infrastructure and military deployment in eastern parts of Arunachal Pradesh leave it highly vulnerable to Chinese military designs. The situation is worsened by a timid and fearful mindset that is unwilling to stand up to Beijing. As a bigger power trying to challenge the US, China will be satisfied with nothing less than a clear military victory in the eventuality of a conflict with India. A prolonged stalemate will be a loss of face for Xi Jinping, as the Ukraine conflict has been for Vladimir Putin. A Chinese military rout of India is not pre-ordained—Indian political and military leaders should be confident of doing better than Ukraine.
The biggest obstacle in forging a cohesive and robust response to China are Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s domestic political considerations. In the years that he was barred by the West from travelling because of the 2002 Gujarat pogrom, Modi invested a lot in his relationship with China. After becoming Prime Minister, Modi met Xi 17 times and created an impression domestically that he would be able to resolve all issues with China with the sheer force of his personality. He has failed, but a largely subservient media has not held him accountable.
A survey of 7,000 Indians by Stimson Center last year showed that 72 per cent of respondents believed that India can defeat China militarily in a conflict. This level of ignorance and bluster is a direct outcome of the tactics of denial, deflection, and evasion followed by the nationalist government on the China border crisis. The situation is aggravated by the build-up of Modi’s “56-inch” image that needs to be preserved at all costs.
Any loss of control over territory to China seems to be acceptable to this government as long as the country is kept in the dark about it. Instead of defending the territory, the government is defending the narrative. It has made its choice. India will pay the price.
Sushant Singh is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.
- The Army has placed check-posts in border areas and restricted the free movement of civilian officials.
- The reason given is that the China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had installed powerful cameras atop the pass and “they would immediately raise objections on the movement from the Indian side if not informed beforehand”.
- It points to a timidity of approach and a play-safe attitude on display by the Army that has further emboldened an assertive PLA.
- Disengagement is like a temporary salve for a malaise, but not a lasting remedy.
- After boastfully signalling in 2020 that it wants to target Chinese companies, the Modi government is now courting them to come and ‘Make in India’.
- The defensive approach, with no retaliatory measures, has emboldened China to continue to assert itself.